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BOOK REVIEW

Riding in 'Zen's' fabled wheel ruts

Zen and Now On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Mark Richardson Alfred A. Knopf: 304 pp., $25

September 02, 2008|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

As A biker, I tend to receive one book repeatedly as a gift : "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." It's just one of those things that non-motorcyclists tend to give actual motorcyclists as a show of friendship, courtship or simpatico, which is why I currently own two copies and have probably given away at least as many.

Never mind that "Zen" isn't (really) about motorcycles or their maintenance. Nor is it (really) about the strain of Buddhism known as Zen. It's a philosophical text about values and how individuals engage with the spiritual and technological aspects of their lives. Motorcycles are merely the lens through which those values are viewed.

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" was written by Robert M. Pirsig, an intellectual who in the late 1960s rode a bike from Minneapolis to San Francisco with his son and, for a portion of the journey, two friends. Despite being rejected by 121 publishers, the book has become one of the most popular philosophy books of all time. Available in 27 languages, it has sold millions of copies since its initial publication in 1974 and continues to be in print today.

"Zen" is an undisputed classic, yet it is also one of those love-it-or-leave-it sorts of books that tends to resonate only when the reader is ready for its message. I had attempted to read this legendary tome three times, only finding success with my last try. So I was happy to learn in the first chapter of the new book "Zen and Now" that its author, Mark Richardson, had experienced the exact same thing.

It also took Richardson three attempts to read the book all the way through -- the last time being so affecting that Richardson, who is the automotive and motorcycle editor for the Toronto Star newspaper, set out to re-create Pirsig's legendary route along roads less traveled. Not only was Richardson in search of "Zen's" continued relevance but to prove his own theory that if Pirsig's book "could open so many readers' eyes to more of life's qualities, then . . . his actual journey can open my eyes wider still."

Unfortunately, Richardson doesn't spend enough time in the book opening his eyes to another main motivation for his trip: his need to flee his wife and sons for a while and purge what is clearly a midlife crisis as he approaches his 42nd birthday. Richardson is either unaware or too embarrassed to fully embrace this inconvenient truth, and in doing so, he's missed an opportunity not only to make Pirsig's trip his own but to connect with the likely readers of this book -- the many middle-aged men who have taken up motorcycling for that very reason.

I don't know of any biker who hasn't thought of fleeing the entrapments of his or her life for a while -- work, the mortgage, the kids -- and hitting the road with an open mind for new experiences. Escapism is a major part of the allure of motorcycling. It's the extent of that need for escapism that often distinguishes one motorcyclist from another, and I found myself wishing that Richardson would just cop to his own individual need.

What Richardson does do well is put the reader in the saddle of his 1985 Suzuki DR600 motorcycle as he charts a time-compressed version of Pirsig's original 17-day trek. Although the route was difficult to replicate because so many years have passed and so many of the businesses Pirsig patronized no longer exist, Richardson tries his best to be a "Pirsig's pilgrim" and do what so many nostalgic "Zen" fans have done before him -- ride the same roads and visit the same motels, diners, gas stations and still-living people referenced in the original book.

While Richardson seems too deferential at times to Pirsig, there are moments when Richardson's dogged pursuit of "Zen" and its incidental places and characters pays off. Some of the best moments in "Zen and Now," in fact, come when Richardson literally stops and gets to know them better -- for instance, Bill the mechanic. Bill was mentioned only in passing in the original book, but Richardson spends 12 pages on the man whom Pirsig regarded as the rare mechanic who was fair and knowledgeable.

Richardson's writing is a little stiff in the beginning, but it becomes increasingly assured and poetic as the book progresses. At one point, when loading his motorcycle for the day's ride, he writes, "The poor bike seems to flex like a stoic mule as each heavy item takes its place." Richardson is quite meticulous in describing the thoughts, sensations, even the superstitions many motorcyclists experience while riding, as well. Even more impressive, he's able to fluidly intertwine his own two-wheeled travails with those in the "Zen" story. The result is a sort of Cliff's Notes version of the dense, 373-page original, and as much of a biography of Pirsig as Richardson was able to piece together.

Pirsig has led both a fascinating and tragic life. A misunderstood "genius," according to Richardson, he had been committed to a mental facility before writing "Zen"; his son Chris, who accompanied Pirsig on the "Zen" journey, was later murdered. Pirsig is now almost 80 and a recluse. He would not agree to a face-to-face meeting with Richardson, though the two did eventually exchange some letters while Richardson was writing the book. Most of the original biographical information about Pirsig came from interviews Richardson conducted with Pirsig's family, friends and acquaintances, including the Sutherlands, who accompanied Pirsig for nine out of the 17 days of his journey.

One of the main tenets of "Zen" is that a job is worth doing only if it's done well. While Richardson's book falls a little short of that maxim, it is still an enjoyable read -- one that would have been even more enjoyable if Richardson had taken the time to meditate on his own life, not just Pirsig's.

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